England restore pride and parity to finish series on a high
Broad and Leach excel to secure 2-2 Ashes draw Smith dismissed for 23 by brilliant Stokes catch
Not many creations born in September 1882 are alive and vibrating 137 years later but the Ashes are. After this series ended 2-2 – the only such outcome save in 1972 – tickets for the Brisbane Test in November 2021 will soon be selling like hot burgers.
The contest between England and Australia is as fierce as ever. If proof were needed, it came on the fourth evening when England were bound to win and level the series, yet a duel ensued between Matthew Wade and Jofra Archer which was as ferocious as if they had been firing cannons at each other point-blank.
Archer hit Wade, Wade hit Archer, and the verbals, balls, stares and glares were flying everywhere. Yet an hour later both sides were shaking hands and, while relieved they can rest their feet after the most intense of summers, secretly savouring the prospect of doing it all again in the next round in Australia.
It was a brilliant performance by England to lift themselves off the floor of disappointment, where they had landed last Sunday after Australia had gone 2-1 up at Old Trafford and retained the Ashes. It had to be in order to overcome Steve Smith and Australia’s fast bowlers.
But they were given a helping hand by Tim Paine, who sent England in to bat; and Australia can hardly be accused of making the most of their mercurial left-armer Mitchell Starc. It was good for cricket, however, that Australia’s attritional attitude to pace bowling, inimical to spontaneity, did not ultimately triumph.
Day four itself could hardly have gone closer to perfection for England’s players, given they were 2-1 down, and supporters. Stuart Broad began it by clubbing a couple of sixes off Pat Cummins, then a couple of Australian openers, so that although the opening partnership was only 18, it was Australia’s highest of this series.
Only if David Warner had eluded Broad’s shackles could Australia have reached their target of 399, and he pushed hard hands in front of his body yet again, to be caught in the slips. The South African allrounder Trevor Goddard alone has been such a bunny for an England bowler: in 1960 Brian Statham dismissed Goddard seven times, as Broad did Warner.
It has been a low-scoring series overall, for top-order batsmen especially, because the Dukes ball has seamed and swung, not only when new. But it was the angle of attack which dissected Warner’s defence. Broad, from round the wicket, dismissed left-handers 16 times, seven right-handers.
Smith entered at noon. Ten minutes later he changed his gloves. He had never made a Test hundred in the fourth innings. But Smith did
not even extend his record of nine consecutive scores of 50-plus in Ashes innings – and he would not have been human if he had saved his best till last.
Earlier this summer England had tried having Smith edge to a fine leg-slip, but this time they allowed for him to get most of his bat on the ball and he was superlatively caught by Ben Stokes, diving to his left.
A fair reflection of Smith’s talent was his aggregate of 774 runs at 110; and so too his 12 slip catches, almost twice as many as the next outfielder. A few boos accompanied Smith as he walked from the field; by the time he reached the steps to the dressing rooms his reception was worthy of a world-class cricketer, who has done due penance, and who has extended the parameters of batting with his unorthodoxy.
Jack Leach had Marnus Labuschagne stumped when lunging forward, but Wade was masterful in using his feet to spin, and undaunted during his duel with Archer in his eight-over spell after tea. It made spectacular theatre.
Had Australia’s target been 299, not 399, the number of spectators having fatal heart attacks might have exceeded the one in 1882, when the Ashes were created (1877 was the date of the first Test).
It was appropriate Paine was given out when he mistakenly asked for a review: Australia’s captain lagged far behind his counterpart in his acumen when requesting reviews. Paine’s fellow Tasmanian, Wade, was embarked on a semistokesian innings until, after scoring 117 – his fourth Test century – off 166 balls, he ran at Root’s off-break and was stumped. Two catches by Root himself – the second exceptional – gave Leach the last two wickets off consecutive balls and figures to treasure.
This result was suitable for Trevor Bayliss, who ended unbeaten in a home Test series as head coach, and presided over the World Cup victory as well. He goes down as better than any English head coach but, as England won away Test series only in South Africa and Sri Lanka, not better than the Zimbabweans Duncan Fletcher and Andy Flower.
It may seem strange that this series will not simply be seen as shared with honours even; but holding the Ashes has always been the primary objective.
The myth was as antiquated as medieval warfare when it was created – this seizing the body of English cricket, cremating the Ashes and taking the urn to Australia – but no reason why it should be updated to be like all other, subsequent, international sports. This contest, after all, is vibrantly alive.
Reasons to be cheerful: Joe Root and England reflect on winning the final Test (left) while Australia celebrate retaining the urn (far left)